It looks like this semester’s parade of Review advertisements and reactionary guest speakers isn’t going to be enough. Over the past week, the Oberlin College Republicans and Libertarians blanketed campus with ubiquitous white-on-black posters declaring their fealty to the principle of free speech and their opponents’ equivalence to authoritarian leaders like Hitler and Stalin. If this was all happening on the Internet, the compelling advice would be “don’t feed the trolls” — but since these posters are in all likelihood being bankrolled by the same Steven Shapiro, OC ’83, hedge fund executive and College trustee who funds the right-wing Ronald Reagan Political Lectureship Series, perhaps they do deserve some attention, if only in the hope that Mr. Shapiro might find a more productive avenue for his munificence.
Of course, it’s hard to deny that at least some limits on absolute freedom of speech can in fact be essential, despite any hyperbolic sloganeering to the contrary. After all, in Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ now-aphoristic words from the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man from falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre and causing a panic.” The original context of Schenck notwithstanding — upholding the repression of antiwar protesters during World War I — there are clearly occasions when the ungoverned expression of ideas would demand suppression not just meeting but exceeding the disregard and disruption the OCRL have faced in recent months, and to blithely suggest otherwise without any caveats smacks of intellectual dishonesty.
A good visual model for understanding the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable speech in different contexts comes from political scientist Daniel Hallin’s 1986 book The Uncensored War. In Hallin’s conception, any discourse centers around a universally accepted core called the “sphere of consensus” surrounded by a donut-shaped area called the “sphere of legitimate debate” that borders an outside region called the “sphere of deviance,” and a key cause of social and political friction is the misalignment of spheres when two discourses with different standards are forced to interact with one another. While the incongruent spheres most often emphasized by scholars like Hallin and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen belong to the political/media establishment and the broader electorate, the key conflict in this case is between both of those discourses and the radically different standards upheld in academic settings like Oberlin College.
In what ways are Oberlin’s standards out of sync with those of Shapiro and the OCRL, or of the speakers they hope to catapult out of our sphere of deviance? For one thing, the demands leveled at Oberlin’s political discourse often seem to ignore some of the basic practices of academic political science: In decrying Oberlin for its “overwhelmingly liberal intellectual bias” [“Reagan Lectureship Series Promotes Free Speech, Challenges Assumptions and Bias,” The Oberlin Review, Sept. 21, 2012], for example, Shapiro clearly uses the word “liberal” in its popular American sense as a rough synonym for “left-wing,” while political scientists and mainstream discourses outside the U.S. use “liberalism” to describe a worldview more in line with the Libertarian Party or Adam Smith than the Green Party or Karl Marx. Such ham-fisted equivocation is closer to the creationist dismissal of biological evolution as “just a theory” than Shapiro would probably like to believe.
Far from incidental, this clash between common international/academic vocabulary and popular American vernacular is a microcosm of the conservatives’ entire complaint: not a list of specific intellectual grievances about the boundaries of Oberlin’s spheres, but a mindless observation that our standards are far removed from the contemporary U.S. mainstream, and a demand that we change our standards to match it. On the contrary, institutions like Oberlin should strive to critique the societies they inhabit from as many diverse, far-reaching and rigorous angles as they can, and even to study alternatives to the existing social, cultural, political and economic order. To the extent that prominent figures like Rick Santorum or Rush Limbaugh urge us to cease such critiques, reflexively accepting our society’s sphere of consensus as self-evident and shunning its sphere of deviance as unthinkable, the political forces they represent should receive none of the institutional legitimacy Oberlin has to offer.
But even absent any inherently progressive orientation from academia, the key point regarding freedom of speech is that different discourses will always uphold different standards of acceptable speech — from a U.S. presidential debate to an Oberlin politics seminar, from a Tea Party rally to the “quiet rooms” in which Mitt Romney believes we should discuss inequality — and many of these differences are not just inevitable but crucial, especially at a serious college or university. Whatever we think of abstract values like free speech and open debate, all of us from Holmes to Hallin to Marx to Shapiro ultimately have to decide which speech must be unfree for fruitful discussion to be possible, and whether such speech can be stifled implicitly through social pressure or must be censored explicitly from the top. Answering these questions by shouting “Freedom!” at the top of one’s lungs and casting more intricate answers as totalitarianism redux is shockingly inappropriate at a serious college or university — but if the OCRL would like to start trying a little harder, then in the spirit of dialogue, Oberlin welcomes them to put aside the Hitler nonsense and join us at the discussion table.